I do not know who Charles Black is, but I'm beginning to suspect he doesn't exist. I'm not going to go too far out on a limb here, but during some extraordinarily cursory research into the man behind the British anthology series The Black Book of Horror, I found a blog by horror writer Craig Henderson, who often appears within those pages, and his archive for the tag "Charles Black" is, indeed, labeled "Charles Black", with the quotation marks. See? Then, elsewhere, I found a brief interview, allegedly with Charles Black, in which he's asked "Who are ya?" and begins his answer by saying "Most people have no idea who I am..."
So I'm thinking a pseudonym, for a person or a horror writer collective. Right or wrong, does any of this matter? Almost certainly not, but these Black Book of Horror things are sort of weird. I don't know where I first heard about them, but it was probably when I was doing an Amazon search for Reggie Oliver, hoping maybe he'd published a book I could afford. Oliver gets a regular look in to these Charles Black books, and in fact has a story in each of the three volumes -- the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh -- I purchased last month. The regular presence of Reggie Oliver in any anthology series can only be good, and, also good, Mark Samuels is no stranger to those pages either. But they're not the only ones. Looking at the contents pages for my three volumes, it feels as though Charles Black, or "Charles Black", selects the stories that appear in his anthologies from a pool of maybe thirty, thirty-five writers. As I said, Reggie Oliver has a story in all three volumes. John Llewellyn Probert appears four times in three volumes. Paul Finch three times, Craig Herbertson and David Williamson three times, Anna Taborska three...you get the idea. These are short books, too, about 200 pages each, give or take 10 pages. People complain that Stephen Jones has too regular a stable, but he has nothing on Charles Black.
This quirk -- and by the way, no introduction to any of the books, and no author biographies, either -- did make choosing my stories for today fairly easy, though. I just picked three of the most regular contributors, three I'd never read before, and that was it. None of the stories in these books are long -- 17 stories making up a 200-ish page book means nothing is going to top 20 pages -- and each of the ones I read was pretty breezy, which is not necessarily a compliment but it certainly makes my job a little easier. And each story was, in the end, completely ridiculous.
We begin with a story I chose based on the title, "Hangman Wanted: Apply in Writing" by Paul Finch, from The Fifth Black Book of Horror. This story is what it seems to be. A man, calling himself Styles, puts an ad in the paper looking for a hangman, and finds one, named Gargan. Gargan admits to being wanted by the law, but this only sweetens the deal for Styles, as he wants someone desperate enough to actually do the job. The job, you should know, is to hang Styles. Styles is dying of cancer, of course, because as awful a disease as it is, it has been an absolute boon to fiction writers, and he doesn't have much time left. He wants to die his way, and his research has shown him that classical hanging, of the kind once practiced in England, is the quickest and least painful option available:
"You see, Gargan...when a person is correctly drop-hanged, he prepitates downwards over a scientifically measured distance, which has taken into account his exact weight and height. When he hits the bottom of the rope, his head is jerked sharply upwards with mathematically predetermined force, causing an immediate fracture-dislocation of the spinal cord and instant deep unconsciousness. Though it may take him a short while to actually expire, he'll know nothing about it."
The reason Styles doesn't act as his own executioner is because he's a devout Catholic who worries about the effect suicide will have on his eternal soul. He also believes in a loving God, and suspects that suicides aren't treated nearly as unfairly as some preach, but he still wants to cut into the risk factor by hiring someone to actually pull the lever. For this, he is willing to pay three million pounds.
So there's your set up, and much of the story involves Gargan following Styles's spy movie-like instructions for getting to the place of execution. And then, if you managed to still be with Paul Finch up to this point, things go bonkers. And by "bonkers" I mean "stupid". There's a big twist ending here that is preceded by a series of events that feel like the result of Finch not believing that simply hanging Styles would be a satisfying enough end. In fairness, it wouldn't be, but it doesn't appear that Finch thought about this and then chose an ending, but rather just kept typing until something clicked. Styles pulls a gun and starts shooting at Gargan because if he doesn't fight back it's still suicide. Oh, and he doesn't have three million pounds. And then the twist, which I guess I won't give away, but suffice it to say that Gargan as portrayed up until the ending does not match in any way the Gargan we're now supposed to believe in. It's just a twist. The story exists to have a twist, come hell or high water.
Next, in The Sixth Black Book of Horror, is "Bagpuss" by Anna Taborska. This one comes closest to being good. It's a story of a young girl named Emily who is moving with her "uninterested" mother from the city to the country, the two of them fending for themselves since Emily's father up and walked out one day, an act writers employ on those occasions when cancer simply won't do. New York City, apparently, because there are references to Third Avenue and Fifth Avenue, which are not unique to New York, obviously, but nobody bothers to mention such avenues otherwise. I don't know Taborska's nationality, but it's hard to imagine "Bagpuss" as being an American story, considering that "Bagpuss", the title, refers to Emily's cat. And Bagpuss does not sound like the name of an American cat.
Anyhow, so Emily and Bagpuss and her mother travel by train to their new country home, which Emily does not care for:
And Emily finally understood the feeling in the pit of her stomach that she'd had since she was little -- the feeling that crept over her in the middle of the day or in the dead of night; the feeling that grew as she tossed and turned in her bed -- formless and indescribably until it took shape and found expression in her nightmares and anxiety dreams...
Emily trembled as she looked up at her new home.
By the end of "Bagpuss", this passage might manage to take on greater significance than it does at the time -- you're reading a horror story, after all, and such things are to be expected -- because like all three of today's stories, there is no supernatural element in "Bagpuss", despite the implication of Emily's sudden fears. No, "Bagpuss" would seem to be the story of a mind that either suddenly breaks or was always cracked, but in any case what follows that is so fast and out of the blue that I imagine a film version of "Bagpuss" would attract ironic fans to midnight screenings where everybody is dressed as cats or little girls or cab drivers or bankers driving SUVs, and they throw rocks and hot chocolate and shit at the screen during important moments. Taborska did succeed in making me like the cat, even though why it gets the title spot I don't know. It is significant, but by the end it's less specifically significant, as a cat and as a pet, than the title would lead you to believe. The story could just as easily, or more easily, be called "Emily". Or "Her Mom".
Finally, in The Seventh Black Book of Horror we have "It Begins at Home" by John Llewellyn Probert. This one is I guess a satire of some sort, a satire of charitable organizations and the way they try to make people feel bad enough about famine and poverty to give away their money. It's almost as if Probert believes charity is a bad thing, or that he resents being made to feel guilty, but in any case the story is about a near-impoverished (irony???) photographer whose pictures of starving children in Tansinia don't impress his boss because the children don't look as near death as one might consider desirable when their client, the charity, is looking for donations. Probert makes it clear that it's the, I guess, ad agency, and not the charity, who is to blame for what comes -- here's a hint: if you want someone to look dead in your photograph, what's the best way to insure that? -- but what any of this is in aid of I couldn't tell you, unless it is indeed that Probert thinks charities are a bunch of bullshit. Which is his right.
But need I go on. I do not believe I need. The one other thing I will say about all of these stories is that they feel very much like they were written by the same person, or, to put it another way, could have been written by anybody. If it wasn't for the presence of Reggie Oliver, Mark Samuels, Steve Rasnic Tem, and others in "Charles Black"'s series, I would really be wondering right about now.